Synopses & Reviews
Owen Meany, the only child of a New Hampshire granite quarrier, believes he is God's instrument; he is.
This is John Irving's most comic novel, yet Owen Meany is Mr. Irving's most heartbreaking character.
"Roomy, intelligent, exhilarating and darkly comic...Dickensian in scope....Quite stunning and very ambitious."
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"John Irving is an abundantly and even joyfully talented storyteller."
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOKR EVIEW
"Superbly narrated sequences of comic action... Irving is particularly good at rendering the dynamics of things he has a Dickensian ability to juxtapose and animate unpromising objects
[as in] the book's grand and brilliantly conceived final scene....You don't just read Irving, you listen to him." The New Republic
"Extraordinary, so original, and so enriching....A rare creation in the somehow exhausted world of late 20th century fiction....Readers will come to the end feeling sorry to leave [this] richly textured and carefully wrought world." Stephen King, The Washington Post Book World
"Roomy, intelligent, exhilarating, and darkly comic....Dickensian in
scope....Quite stunning and very ambitious." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A lavish meditation on predestination, faith, and the unrealized forces that shape one's days." San Francisco Chronicle
"John Irving is an abundantly and even joyfully talented storyteller." The New York Times Book Review
"Vintage Irving....A boisterous cast, a spirited joy." Time
"A Prayer for Owen Meany leaps off the pages with an imaginative passion that is startling....This is John Irving at full throttle: a riveting narrative, a cast of richly developed characters, and a story as complex and unbelievable as life itself....[A] joyous, provocative read!" Playboy
"I have been a voracious reader since childhood, and while I've read and loved many, many books, I can honestly say that A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite! It is such an extraordinarily funny, moving and heartbreaking story and the ending is the best and most satisfying one I've ever read. The highlight of my first year working for Ballantine Books was attending a reading John Irving gave for the paperback publication. Owen Meany has a very memorable voice when you read the book, so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to hear my favorite author read my favorite book and do the voice of Owen Meany!" M. Coolman, Ballantine Publicity
"Riveting...Owen Meany, drawn in bold strokes, burns in the mind's eye vivid, alive, beloved long after the turning of the final page." UPI
"One of the most subtle and brilliant artistic examinations yet of America and America's involvement in Vietnam." San Jose Mercury News
"A wondrous novel... ultimately beguiling in its soulful account of a remarkable friendship... Irving's ability to create idiosyncratic characters and put them through weirdly ridiculous yet realistic paces has never been in finer fettle. Humor partnered with compassion, wisdom with absurdity, leave the reader both mirthful and tearful." Booklist
"[Mr. Irving] is more than popular. He is a Populist, determined to keep alive the Dickensian tradition that revels in colorful set pieces and teaches moral lessons....More than any of his novels since Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany embraces those 19th-century qualities." The New York Times
In the summer of 1953, two 11-year-old boys best friends are playing in a Little League baseball game in New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills his best friend's mother. Owen Meany believes he didn't hit the ball by accident. He believes he is God's instrument. What happens to Owen after 1953 is extraordinary and terrifying. He is Irving's most heartbreaking hero.
About the Author
John Irving published his first novel at the age of twenty-six. He has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation; he has won an O. Henry Award, a National Book Award, and an Academy Award. Mr. Irving lives with his family in Toronto and Vermont.
Reading Group Guide
1. Though he's portrayed as an instrument of God, Owen Meany causes the death of John's mother. What other deaths was Owen indirectly involved with? Do you find Owen's close relationship with death to support or undermine his miraculous purpose?
2. Owen speaks and writes in capital letters, emphasizing the potency of his strange voice. At the academy, he is even referred to as the Voice. Why is Owen's voice so important? What other occasions can you think of in which Owen's voice played an especially mean-ingful role?
3. Reverend Merrill always speaks of faith in tandem with doubt. Do you believe that one can exist without the other or that one strengthens the other? Was your opinion about Merrill's views on faith and doubt affected by the revelation of his relationship to John Wheelwright?
4. Merrill experiences a bogus miracle and resurgence of faith when John stages his mother's dressmaker dummy outside the church. Later, John's involvement in Owen's rescue of the Vietnamese chil-dren spurs John's own faith: "I am a Christian because of Owen Meany," he says. Do you think the genuineness of Owen's miracle makes the birth of John's faith more valid than the faith engendered by Merrill's bogus miracle?
5. The Meanys claim that, like Jesus, Owen was the product of a vir-gin birth. Owen dislikes the Catholic Church for turning away his parents, but Owen himself makes the Meanys leave the Christmas Pageant. Name other instances when Owen's feelings toward his family seem conflicted. Do you think Owen ever considers himself Christlike?
6. An observer necessary to the Christmas Pageant but seldom an ac-tive participant, John plays Joseph to Owen's baby Jesus. John refers to himself on other occasions as "just a Joseph." Do you see John's role as Joseph-like throughout the story? Are there other biblical characters with whom you identify John?
7. Did Irving's references to the armless Indian and the pawless armadillo prepare you for Owen's sacrifice? What other clues did Irving give about Owen's final heroic scene?
8. Throughout the novel, John gives hints to the forthcoming action, adding, "As you shall see." Did you find this to be an effective way to keep you reading and engaged in the story?
9. Owen Meany taught John that "Any good book is always in motion--from the general to the specific, from the particular to the whole and back again." Do you think Irving followed his own recipe for a good book? Supply examples in support of your position.
10. Given John's dislike of Gravesend Academy, which expelled Owen, did you find it interesting that John later taught at an academy in Toronto? In what other ways does John, as an adult, embrace issues or events that he was indifferent or hostile to as an adolescent?
11. John assists Owen in rescuing the children, but John always plays the supporting part in Owen's adventures. Based on the scenes in Toronto in the 1980s, do you think John ever escaped his support-ing role? How do you think John's retained virginity reflects on his sense of self?
12. Did your feelings about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam change after reading Irving's portrayal of the peace movement, the draft dodgers, and Owen's involvement in the army? Were you surprised by Owen's efforts to get to Vietnam?
13. John's reactions to and obsession with the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s reflect his position as neither a true Canadian nor a true American. Do you think that non-Americans have a clearer vision of the machinations and deceptions within American politics? What did John's focus on American politics tell you about his adult character?
14. Irving frequently foreshadows tragedy; for example, hailstones hit John's mother on the head during her wedding day, providing a glimpse of her later death by a baseball. What other events does Irving foreshadow?
15. Several reviews call A Prayer for Owen Meany "Dickensian," and Irving himself incorporates scenes from Dickens in the story. In what ways does Irving's writing remind you of Dickens's? What other writers would you compare Irving to?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
An Essay by John Irving
Ten years before the publication of A Prayer for Owen Meany-- and five years before its author thought of that novel--John Irving wrote an essay, "In Defense of Sentimentality," for The New York Times Book Review. Published a month before Christmas, the essay was intended to give readers of the Book Review a taste of Irving's year-round Christmas spirit. The essay begins with praise of A Christmas Carol and quickly turns to an appreciation of Dickens as a writer (and Great Expectations in particular) and to the broader topic of the necessity of sentimental risks in fiction.
The essay not only foreshadows John Irving's use of A Christmas Carol in A Prayer for Owen Meany, it announces the author's intent to move readers, emotionally--a promise Irving keeps in Owen Meany, and in the novels that follow it.
In Defense of Sentimentality
By John Irving
Well over a century ago, Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol--it was just two days after Christmas and 2,000 people gave the author their rapt attention (and frequent applause). The reading took three hours, though in later years Dickens would prune A Christmas Carol to a two-hour performance; he liked it well enough that first time, however, to repeat the reading three days later--to an audience of 2,500 almost exclusively composed of working people, for whom he had requested that the auditorium be reserved. He thought they were his best audience. "They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried," Dickens said, "and [they] animated me to that extent that I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together."
I wish I could have been there. I try to imagine it, every Christmas, when I watch the new and old television versions of A Christmas Carol; some are better than others, and in some I can imagine Dickens himself--who loved to act--taking the part of Scrooge, or playing the Ghost of Christmas Past. Dickens might have enjoyed the mesmerizing popularity of television, though he surely would have detested the lifelessness of television's language; it was at his insistence that the price of A Christmas Carol was held to five shillings--so that it might reach a wider audience.
In his biography of Charles Dickens, Edgar Johnson writes, "A Christmas Carol is a serio-comic parable of social redemption, and Scrooge's conversion is the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind." Indeed, it is the hopefulness of that inspired dream of a book (Tiny Tim is spared, and Scrooge sees the error of his ways) that makes A Christmas Carol ever-appropriate for Christmas. "Against Scrooge and the orthodox economists," Mr. Johnson writes, "Dickens insists that no way of life is sound or rewarding that leaves out men's need of loving and being loved."
And, in the spirit of Christmas, who could fault A Christmas Carol? "Who can listen," Thackeray said, "to objections regarding a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness." It is surprising, however, how many read-ers reserve Dickens--and hopefulness in general--for Christmas. It seems that what we applaud in Dickens--his kindness, his generosity, his belief in our dignity--is also what we condemn him for (under an-other name) in the off-Christmas season.
The other name is sentimentality--to the modern reader, when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty. But as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether. It is typical--and forgivable--among student writers to avoid being mushminded by simply refusing to write about people, or by refusing to subject characters to emotional extremes. Ashort story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us, either. Afear of contamination by soap opera haunts the educated writer--and reader--though we both forget that, in the hands of a clod, Madame Bovary would have been perfect material for daytime television and a contemporary treatment of The Brothers Karamazov could end up with a campus setting. Dickens took Christmas risks all year round.
"I must make the most I can out of the book," he said, before beginning Great Expectations--"I think [it's] a good name?" he said. Good, indeed, and a title many writers wish were free for them to use, a title many wonderful novels could have had: The Great Gatsby, To the Lighthouse, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Sun Also Rises, Moby Dick--all great expectations, of course.
Yet the hopefulness that makes everyone love A Christmas Carol draws fire when Dickens employs it in his best novel; when Christmas is over, Dickens's hopefulness strikes many as mere wishful thinking. Dickens's original ending to Great Expectations, that Pip and his impossible love, Estella, should stay apart, is thought to be the proper (and certainly the modern) conclusion--from which Dickens eventu-ally shied away. For such a change of heart and mind, he is accused of selling out. After an early manhood of shallow goals, Pip is meant finally to see the falseness of his values--and of Estella--and he emerges as a sadder though wiser fellow. Many have expressed how Dickens stretches credulity too far when he leads us to suppose--in his revised ending--that Estella and Pip could be happy ever after; or that anyone can. Of his new ending--where Pip and Estella are reconciled-- Dickens himself remarked to a friend: "I have put in a very pretty piece of writing, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration." That Estella would make Pip--or anyone--a rotten wife is not the point. They are linked; happily or unhappily, they belong together.
Biographically, it is difficult to resist the association of Pip's trapped worship of Estella with Dickens's own sad adoration of the young actress, Ellen Ternan. Although the suggestion that Dickens revise the original ending came from his friend Bulwer Lytton, who wished the book to end on a happier note, Edgar Johnson wisely points out that "the changed ending reflected a desperate hope that Dickens could not banish from within his own heart." That hope is no last-minute alteration, tacked on, but simply the culmination of a hope that abides throughout the novel: that Estella might change. After all, Pip changes. The book isn't called Great Expectations for nothing. It is not, I think, meant to be an entirely bitter title.
In fact, it is the first ending that is out of character--for Dickens, and for the novel. Pip, upon meeting Estella (after two years of hearing only rumors of her), remarks with a pinched heart: "I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for in her face, and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be." Although that tone--of self-congratulation and self-pity--is more modern than Dickens's romantic revision, I fail to see how we or our literature would be better for it.
The revised ending reads: "I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." A very pretty piece of writing, as Dickens noted, but eternally open--still ambiguous (Pip's hopes have been dashed before)--and far more the mirror of the quality of trust in the novel as a whole. It is that hopeful ending that sings with all the rich contradiction we should love Dickens for; it both underlines and undermines everything before it. Pip is basically good, basically gullible; he starts out being human, he learns by error, he keeps on being human. That touching illogic seems not only generous but true.
"When people say that Dickens exaggerates," George Santayana writes, "it seems to me that they can have no eyes and no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value." And to those who contend that no one was ever so sentimental, or that there was no one ever like Wemmick or Jaggers or Bentley Drummle, to name a few, San-tayana says: "The polite word is lying; there are such people; we are such people ourselves in our true moments, in our veritable impulses; but we are careful to stifle and hide those moments from ourselves and from the world; to purse and pucker ourselves into the mask of conventional personality; and so simpering, we profess that it is very coarse and inartistic of Dickens to undo our life's work for us in an instant, and remind us of what we are." Santayana is also brilliant at defending Dickens's stylistic excesses: "He mimicks things to the full; he dilates and exhausts and repeats; he wallows," Santayana admits, though he adds, "this faculty, which renders him a consummate comedian, is just what alienated him from a later generation in which people of taste were aesthetes and virtuous people were higher snobs; they wanted a mincing art, and he gave them copious improvisation, they wanted analysis and development, and he gave them absolute comedy."
Christmas--or any other demonstration of giving--is no time for "a mincing art"; we should learn that there is really no good time for such cramped elitism. "God bless us every one!" cried Tiny Tim. But this Christmas, since we're so familiar with A Christmas Carol--in its sev-eral versions--we might well read Great Expectations; it is a book many of us read last when we were in school, when we were too young to appreciate it. For its Christmas spirit--its open-hearted and forgiving qualities, and its feast of language--it is the best of novels by a writer of no mincing art.
And when we writers--in our own work--escape the slur of senti-mentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.
--November 25, 1979
The New York Times Book Review
From the Trade Paperback edition.